How to use the Bible as a tool for meditation
In Latin, one of many ancient languages spoken by the first disciples, Lectio Divina literally means "divine reading." It can also be translated as "holy reading" or "reading with God."
What is Lectio Divina?
Lectio Divina is a traditional way of praying meditatively with the Bible so that the Word of God can reach into our hearts and minds. It's a simple and natural way of meditation practiced by the early monastics—women and men who followed God's call to a radical vocation of silence, prayer and love. Other great faith traditions—including Islam, Judaism and Buddhism—independently developed similar methods for meditative reading of sacred texts.
This method can help us let go of our own agendas when we read the Bible. Like other forms of meditation, Lectio Divina silences the noise of the world around us, leading us in stages to an inner silence where God is waiting for us. But Lectio Divina is not an escape from the world. Instead, God's Word helps us see both our lives and the world around us through God's eyes—and to love what we see with the heart of God. It is both inner-directed to the presence of God within and outer-directed to the world God created.
When we listen to God's Word in this way, meditation can be both a calming and a disturbing experience. Sometimes, God may want to quiet our fears and hold us gently. At other times, God may want to confront us with uncomfortable doubts or unanswered questions.
In the 12th century, a Carthusian monk named Guigo described four stages in the practice of Lectio Divina.
- "Lectio" (reading). Read the Word of God slowly and reflectively. Any text from the Bible can be used for this purpose, but the text should not be too long. The text from our "Weekly Seeds" opt-in mailing list is one way to choose a verse for prayer.
- "Meditatio" (reflection). Think quietly about the text you read it. Sometimes, a text can be read many times to let the words sink into your mind and heart.
- "Oratio" (response). Leave your thinking aside and simply let your heart speak to God.
- "Contemplatio" (rest). Let not only of your own ideas and plans but even of your holy words and thoughts. Simply rest in the Word of God. Listen at the deepest level to God who speaks within you with a still, small voice.
- As you read, reflect, respond and rest, you leave ourselves open to be transformed from within by God's Word. Whether over time this transformation has an effect on the way you see and live in the world is one test of the authenticity of prayer. You take what you read in the Word of God into your daily life.
Okay, but how does it actually work? What do I do?
There is no "right" or "wrong" way to read the Bible as a source for meditation. As you experiment, you may find yourself adapting this old tradition in ways that are useful to you. Here's one method:
- First, look for a quiet space where you can read and pray. This could be a chair that is comfortable—but not so comfortable that you fall asleep! You want to be relaxed and attentive at the same time. You could sit on the floor with a cushion for support. You might want to set apart in your home a "holy place" to use for daily prayer. A lighted candle, icon, cross or some other meaningful object can be used to center your attention.
- Second, ask God to enter you through God's Word. Any "prayer of illumination," or your own spontaneous prayer, is suitable. Here's one example: Prepare my heart, O God, to accept your Word. Silence in me any voice but your own, that, hearing, I may also obey your will, through Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.*
- Third, use deep breathing to calm your body and mind. This is an ancient technique used for centuries in Christian and other faith traditions. Breathe in slowly and deliberately, then out in the same manner. Be conscious of your breathing: remember that all living things breathe and that "spirit" means "breath." Find a slow but natural and comfortable rhythm for your breathing. Continue until you feel relaxed and attentive.
- Fourth, pick up the Bible and read through your chosen text. You can read the text quietly out loud or silently in your mind. Read slowly and quietly. You can either read in silence or repeat the words out loud. Take your time. Read several times until one verse or a few words from a verse "speaks to you."
- Fifth, repeat the verse or words you have chosen. If it helps, divide the text into two parts: think the first part as you breathe in and the second part as you breathe out. Continue repeating the text until God moves you to silence.
- Sixth, spend time in silence. Be aware that you are in God's holy presence. Continue looking at the object you have chosen as a focus of meditation: an icon, cross or lighted candle. Be open to whatever may happen to you: you may feel an emotion, or a sense of awareness, or simply a sense of God's presence.
- Seventh, bring the time of meditation to a close. When you feel the time is right, reread the Bible text one more time. Then conclude with the Prayer of Our Savior (the Lord's Prayer), or any other prayer, or a personal prayer you feel moved to say to God.
Experiment: and find your own way!
Remember that there is no "right" or "wrong" way to pray! You may find these methods useful, or you may not. Feel free to experiment and develop a style of your own. The important thing is to remember that the Bible is not only a text for study but also the first and best prayer book of the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church. Use the Bible as your resource for prayer as you seek a closer relationship with God.
Some texts for meditation
Some of these texts are short enough to serve as a simple focus of meditation, using the ancient breathing technique we've described in this resource. We've also provided examples of how brief phrases for meditation can be extracted from a longer text. Finally, two versions of the Jesus Prayer: an ancient mantra for meditation.
For God alone my soul waits in silence; /
from God comes my salvation.
God alone is my rock and my salvation, /
my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
My presence is with you, /
and I will give you rest.
1 Kings 19:11-12
[The Word of God said to Elijah:] "Go out and stand on the mountain before God, for God is about to pass by." Now, there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
After the fire, /
a sound of silence.
[Jesus said,] "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Come to me, /
I will give you rest.
I am gentle, /
You will find rest.
My yoke is easy, /
My burden is light.
The Jesus Prayer [inclusive version]
Jesus Christ, Savior, Child of God, /
have mercy on me.
The Jesus Prayer [traditional version]
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
The Jesus Prayer [a simpler version]
* Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church (USA), adapted. Bible texts from The New Revised Standard Version of the Holy Bible, adapted.
Written by Lynne Bujnak and Andy Lang
Local Church Ministries
United Church of Christ